Remembering Charley Johns and his Committee: Shameful Florida Legislative History

Senator Charley Johns (D-Starke) is one of the best known figures in the Florida Political History for multiple dubious reasons. The leader of the infamous “Pork Chop Gang”. Johns became Governor in 1953 after Governor Dan McCarty the first Governor elected from southern Florida died just months after taking office. Prior to 1968, Florida had no Lieutenant Governor and the Senate President became Governor.

Johns was a reactionary Governor just as he had been in the Senate but in 1954, when he ran to complete McCarty’s term he was beaten in the Democratic Primary to Leroy Collins of Tallahassee who proved to be the first “New South” Governor in the country.

Returning to the Senate, Johns and his allies who controlled the legislature looked to emulate McCarthyism and take advantage of the growing discontent in Florida with the Civil Rights movement. Rural Florida was according to Kari A. Frederickson in his seminal 2001 work ” The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South: 1932 – 1968,” in the early 1950’s one of the most violent and racist areas of the South. While Florida was becoming increasingly urban and cosmopolitan (Florida was the most urban state in the South in 1950 as it remains today) the legislature was malapportioned and controlled by rural North Florida. For example, House members were elected by county so even though Dade County had about 30% of the state’s population in 1960 it has scarcely more representation than Liberty County. As a bloc, rural areas north of Ocala controlled the process.

Repeatedly in this period, the “Pork Choppers” sent hard core segregationist legislation to the Governor, including a bill that would have closed Florida’s Public Schools down rather than integrate. When the Governor vetoed that bill, the legislature passed an “interposition” resolution which Collins strongly objected to but had no authority to veto. This resolution copied those already passed in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Johns had seen the success of Rep. Martin Dies (D-Texas), House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and sought to emulate it in Florida. Looking to investigate Civil Rights groups and “Communists,”  the Johns Committee (known officially as “The Florida Legislative Investigation Committee”) set up shop in the racially charged atmosphere of 1956. The stated goal of the committee was to “investigate all organizations whose principles or activities include a course of conduct on the part of any person or group which could constitute violence, or a violation of the laws of the state, or would be inimical to the well being and orderly pursuit of their personal and business activities by the majority of the citizens of this state.” 

In other words the goal of the Committee was to stop the Civil Rights movement. One of the first actions of the Committee was to target Florida A&M facility who had been active in the Tallahassee Bus Boycott of 1956. The next target was the NAACP who were required to turn over their membership lists to the committee. The NAACP had seen a list of members discovered by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall fall into the hands of the local Ku Klux Klan, so the national organization went to court and won a US Supreme Court ruling that prevented Johns’ from acquiring the lists.

The committee continued investigating Civil Rights organizations but in the early 1960s began focusing on Homosexuality as well. At the time merely being gay was illegal in the state and Johns was determined to “out” any trace of homosexuality in the state’s university system.

The committee attacked almost every aspect of life on a university campus in order to uncover homosexual acts and also to limit academic freedom. Works of literature that promoted equality of African-Americans or had what the committee deemed “pornographic” materials were scrutinized.

In 1964 the committee issued the infamous “Purple Pamphlet” officially known as “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida.” I cannot do justice to the descriptive nature of this document so I will let Wikipedia do the rest.

The Johns Committee is a blot on Florida’s history and again demonstrated the reactionary nature in the 1950s and 1960s of Democrats from rural areas. While Florida was moving forward into a shining city on the hill when compared to the rest of the region under Johns’ successor as Governor Leroy Collins, the “Pork Chop Gang” and allied legislators kept Florida looking like Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia politically.

5 comments

  1. Was once a D now an R · · Reply

    Ever hear of the 10th amendment of the constitution or do they not teach that in India?

    All this committee was doing was protecting Florida from the heavy hand of the Federal Government.

    Keep in mind all homosexuals were at the time breaking the law. Interracial marriage was also illegal at the time.

    Your postings are nothing but junk that view History from the northern perspective. You seem to not understand that there are two sides of the story and that not everybody who was involved in the state was a bad person. We had an established way of life and it was wrong for the northerners to come in and trying change it. How would we as Americans like it if the French or the Germans said we don’t like the way you were laws are were going to change it? We just sit and take it we just allow uneducated street agitators to side with a foreign government?

    The Trayvon Martin case and racist rhetoric of President Obama our most racist president ever has raised the stakes.

    I have read this blog with interest for a long time and realized you have no clue why the Democrats keep losing Florida. You pontificate about history that you don’t understand it’s lessons. By turning it’s back on the south and southern tradition the Democratic Party has made itself a minority party.

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    1. Go troll somewhere else.

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    2. Yup, two sides to every story…….in this case civil rights versus intolerance/bigotry! You’ve chosen wisely to become a Republican.

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  2. […] was during this period that the infamous Johns’ Committee headed by Senator and former Governor Charley Johns (D-Starke) came into being. While McCarthyism […]

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  3. […] There was a big push to rid FSU of homosexuals, by a state senator running for re-election named “Uncle Charlie” Johns (his name will appear again in the chapter on race relations.) Ridding FSU of “queers” was one […]

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